Without Walls TALKS: Outdoor Arts, Artists and Activism by Lorna Rees

24 February 2021

Outdoor artists are disruptors of outdoor space. That’s our job. We render the familiar strange, we change everyday locations with our work, and we illuminate. We are also artists, and to me, it seems fairly natural that many of us are activists too and I firmly believe that the very act of making work for the outdoors in public space is a political act.

A large part of why I make work for the outdoors is because I believe that siting work outside is the best and most democratic place to put art. There are no barriers or boundaries of ‘art spaces’ or ‘white cubes’ or ‘studios’ or even ticket price – it’s there, in front of you, immediately accessible at the point of consumption in your local park or city centre.

Many of us making outdoor work in the UK were hugely influenced directly or indirectly by the radical social politics and work of seminal outdoor arts company Welfare State International. I came across their style of community large scale art-activism as a student and it inspired me to always hope for the same ethical underpinning and intention to the work I make. Welfare State along with Emergency Exit Arts, Walk the Plank and specific festivals such as Notting Hill Carnival and Glastonbury have helped to form the landscape of our vivid and political outdoor arts scene.

Yet, like many performance artists, my work isn’t always overtly political. I have occasionally made my living by DJ-ing portaloo queues or singing in acapella trios wearing astroturf. I encourage people to communally cloud gaze with me or invite them to listen to sounds underneath the ground via my invented science of sonic geology. I like to hope I’m part of a long tradition of perhaps slightly absurdist street theatre practice which you can trace to companies like IOU and Avanti Display. But this work on the streets also means that I have some exceptional skills on the side. I’m great at crowd management, event coordination and audience rallying.

And this does spill over into my life as an activist – which is generally the unpaid side of what I do, the person who writes letters, collaborates with others, organises, sits on social media reporting hate crime, designs banners, placards and the person who mounts campaigns.

There is a certain deeply pleasing power in wielding a placard and with a group of people marching down Whitehall. You feel community, a common goal, a fealty. I greatly enjoy a march, the homemade carnival of it all. But I’ve never been convinced of quite how effective they are politically (18 years ago a million of us marched as an anti-War protest, but to no avail). No one demonstration in the UK has ever changed the law – it’s the movement behind it, the social organisation, the cultural shift which changes policy. Therefore, for many, the key idea of protest is to be noticed by the press, picked up on by social media to create a cultural talking point – and as artists we are experts at creating narrative and in being seen.

I’m not from a family of protesters – far, far from it. My older sister attended the Poll Tax protests (‘riots’) and it was a source of great panic for the family. But being a teenager in the 90s, reading a large amount of feminist literature and hanging out almost exclusively in the LGBTQI+ community in Bournemouth meant that I could see the inequalities. Fundraising for the local HIV hospice in our conservative town was perceived as ‘extremist and political’ and I suppose I decided that if that was the case then well, I was certainly an activist. My first proper protest march (bar a few actions in my hometown) was an anti-tuition fee demonstration in Central London in the late 90s. There were thousands of us, coaches came from student unions across the UK. We were a slightly hungover and scraggly crew from the drama school in Swiss Cottage, but the next day, as we poured over newspapers and combed television channels for any coverage, the one piece of press about the whole thing featured us out of thousands. The reason why? We had a giant prop of a skeleton and a scythe. I think that moment taught me quite a lot.

A quick flick through my mind generally provides me with the beautiful interactive moments – the tea party with a man-cow spurting the audience with his lederhosen udders. The show with the enormous dinner table in which a glorious messy custard pie battle ensued outside the National. The time we all learnt the choreography to the opening number of A Chorus Line outside M&S in Winchester wearing a wig and a boa, or when I played bingo with Beryl and Cyril in Greenwich whilst my Dad fell over from laughing too much. That’s the outdoor arts for me. Playful, memorable, weird, subversive. We are multidisciplinary, musicians, performers, makers and many of us do not have strict boundaries of art form. Often, we talk to our audiences and goodness, they talk back to us.

The suffragettes understood this power of theatricality too. To celebrate 100 years of some women getting the vote, Artichoke mounted a huge event to celebrate the suffrage protest movement with women from all over the country promenading their banners and placards in the suffrage colours purple, green and white. This was historical theatre but also still intensely political. More recently, many of my colleagues and friend’s companies have taken part in various Extinction Rebellion actions and youth climate strikes. The immediately iconic Red Rebel Brigade created by Invisible Circus to Thingumajig’s fire bird to the lovely Joy Magnet Kangaroo crew have all helped to cheer and catalyse the occupation.

‘And the outdoor arts sector in the UK are old hands at subversion – even before Father Ted’s ‘Down with this sort of thing’ Natural Theatre’s British League of Pessimists were protesting against smiling on the street, causing consternation as well as great amusement. I often think humour works best to change hearts and minds.’

Live artist Richard DeDomenici’s outdoor work is a great case in point. He is a disruptor of public space and constantly stimulates a kind of playful discourse. He has mounted protests such the Death of Social Housing (a funeral march through London), mounted small-scale sporting competitions on swivel chairs in multiple countries (Swivelympics) and has even organised a protest against himself which culminated in burning an effigy of himself in Vienna. His documentation captures genuine interactions with his audience – it’s deeply thought through, but also inherently really funny and warm. He makes his point through clever provocation followed through with great wit. He’s not there to polemicise, he’s there to play.

And this humorous, playful approach is also, neurologically the one that works.

Friends who work in indoor theatre have mentioned that one of the reasons they ‘struggle’ with outdoor performance is that it “isn’t political” or “about anything”. Their impression of outdoor work is that the intention is to please a crowd or to entertain (which are noble intentions nonetheless) but as much as I bristle and tell them that they haven’t seen nearly enough outdoor work, I think sometimes we are a bit risk-averse. If you learnt your trade by busking and street performance as many of us have, it makes sense that you’d avoid offence as it could impact your earning power. And programmers can also be risk-averse too.

I was asked by a local Conservative Councillor who apparently ‘loves my work’ why I would ‘spoil things with politics?’ When I challenged a decision to censor artwork on a beach by visual artist Cold War Steve. I had this phrase made into a necklace, to remind myself that even though it might be not the easiest or safest thing business-wise it’s part of my mission and my job as an artist to keep political.

This is an especially important topic for now – our Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is currently trying to instruct cultural and heritage organisations to “defend our culture and history against the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down” because they are (rightfully!) engaging in exhibitions about colonialism and the history of black lives. I used to keep my own efforts in activism, away from the more substantial performance work I make, as if I were separate people, but I just can’t. These things are now simply too intertwined.

I’ve been involved in many forms of activism, mainly in terms of equality and the environment. In recent years, however, I’ve become more politically active on a local level. Partly this has happened because I am represented by Christopher Chope, MP. It’s worth mentioning that Chope is particularly infamous because of his habit of shouting ‘object’ to the progress of Private Members Bills, and in 2018 this included Gina Martin’s Upskirting Bill. When he objected and in the subsequent furore, I placed a protest of knicker bunting on his constituency office door which read ‘no one should be able to photo my pants unless I want them too’. This piece of outdoor artwork – or ‘craftivism’ went viral. I was on Radio 2, TV, my knickers were featured in all of the main National newspapers, copycat underwear made it to his door in Westminster and tiny pants bunting even adorned Adam Hill’s desk on Channel 4’s The Last Leg. Suddenly, people in our constituency were paying attention to Chope’s voting record – not just on Private Members Bills but noticing his retrogressive attitudes on everything from equal marriage legislation to climate change. I was then invited to design the scenography for the stage of the enormous Women’s March UK Anti Trump in Parliament Square in 2018. The year after I worked with the UK Peace Council recruiting friends and volunteers from across faith groups to make 100 meters of peace bunting for a protest of Trump’s State visit in 2019. These textile artifacts now act as a record of two years-worth of women’s peaceful protest.

For the 2019 General Election, I mounted a non-party political campaign involving 50 decorated chairs. The campaign morphed from the small idea of placing a symbolic ‘safe seat’ in the centre of Christchurch, into a huge multi-part political artwork, played out over a whole constituency with hundreds of participants. Christchurch had been for many years the safest Conservative Seat in the UK and so we decided to disrupt that – you can read more about the campaign and what we did here: https://safeseatcampaign.blogspot.com/2020/11/the-safe-seat-campaign.html

I call this whole seam of my work, these tiny-budget playful actions in public space Disruption and Joy. Our interventions, interactive temporary structures – they are different from my major productions such as Ear Trumpet, Cloudscapes and Geophonic. My major work takes years for me to create and are all concerned with Earth Sciences, landscape and the environment and this is political in its own way – particularly in the way they are presented and the themes they tackle. Disruption and Joy might take place at a protest march, but it might also involve a pop music confessional, Christmas Caroloke on the street, or a temporary lockdown notice board gallery.

As the world has been so changed and challenging during 2020, we should be reminded that activism is a brilliant thing and that it can happen in real life as well as on social media. We can change things with hope and effort. At least I think we can. And the evidence is all around us. The level of community activism during the coronavirus pandemic has been extraordinary. From rainbows on homes in support of the NHS to homemade Black Lives Matters posters appearing in windows. Much of this activism is gentle. It’s looking out for each other and it’s about connection. We’ve created a series of street placards and billboards called ‘Signs of Solidarity’ for The Spring in Havant (for the National Here & Now project) to celebrate community kindness and thankfulness during the pandemic, and as we present them; there are tears from all sides. I’ve made loads of hyper-local no-budget outdoor work for my own street in this past year of lockdown, and it’s provided me with some of the most rewarding and moving arts experiences of my life. The effect of gentle, thoughtful actions is profound on both artist and audience. And building empathy is also activism.

It is my belief that our culture forms our future – and that it is part of my duty as an artist with a voice to speak up. I want to leave this world a better place than when I came into it and I want to be a good ancestor. Don’t you?

For more about Lorna and her work www.gobbledegooktheatre.com

Ear Trumpet by  Gobbledegook Theatre was supported by Without Walls in 2015 and commissioned by Salisbury International Arts Festival and Hat Fair.

Originally commissioned by Activate for the Inside Out Dorset Festival and Arts Bournemouth for the Arts by the Sea Festival.

About the Author:

Lorna Rees is Artistic Director of Gobbledegook Theatre, a multidisciplinary arts practice that makes innovative, national and international touring work for the outdoors, including Without Walls touring show Ear Trumpet and Cloudscapes. She collaborates with a variety of talented artists, musicians and scientists with work frequently inspired by Earth Sciences. Lorna is also an activist, making interventions under the title of ‘Disruption and Joy’. Lorna is a board member of Outdoor Arts UK.

The company continues to work through the global pandemic, cloudgazing with audiences in digital and physical space collaborating with festivals nationally and internationally. In May of 2020, Lorna won the Coronavision song contest. Lorna’s new project, Geophonic, co-commissioned by Jerwood Arts and Inside Out Dorset premiers in September 2021.

Image Credits:

Pants of Protest © Lorna Rees

As The World Tipped by Wired Aerial Theatre © Internationales Straßentheaterfestival Pforzheim

451 by Periplum and Corn Exchange Newbury © Ray Gibson

Bingo Lingo by Wild N Beets © Wild N Beets

British League of Pessimists by Natural Theatre © Natural Theatre Company

I Spoil things with Politics © Lorna Rees

Pants of Protest © Lorna Rees

The Women’s UK Peace Council People’s Banquet in Parliament Square © Elainea Emmot Photography

Ear Trumpet by Gobbledegook Theatre © Dominic Old

Cloudscape by Gobbledegook Theatre © Brendan Buesnel